Actually, I Let My Kid Play With Unvaccinated Kids
I’m what you might consider a crunchy mom. I love breastfeeding and babywearing, I’m big on nutrition, and I’d rather my toddler play with simple wooden toys than the noisy plastic kind. But there is one area in which I differ from many of my crunchy peers, and that’s the issue of vaccines. My kid is vaccinated. The science on vaccinations is in, and after doing our research, my wife and I were clear that vaccination was the way to go for our family. But while we've cheerfully gotten our kid his shots, we know full well that we have friends who are nervous about vaccines, or even against them altogether. It’s a sticky subject, and as our toddler grows into a fully-fledged kid, there are questions about how we’ll deal with his interactions with non-vaccinated children in our social circles. But one thing we're definitely clear on right now is that our vaccinated son can play with unvaccinated kids.
Vaccine debates can get heated and intense, and since vaccination rates have dropped in recent years, many parents still find themselves in a panic. I’ve known some parents to take it as far as, “your kid isn’t up to date on their shots? Then they can’t play with my kid; it’s as simple as that," and I can see where they're coming from. Noobody willingly hopes or wants their to child pick up a nasty case of whooping cough, or worse, the measles. It's terrifying to think of what might happen. And yet, I’ve made my decision, and I don't ask my friends about the immunization status of their children prior to playdates. I let my kid play with kids I suspect, or even know, aren’t vaccinated. I know that many vaccinating parents can't understand how we could even associate with parents who don't vaccinate their kids, but I have my reasons.
From where I sit, I figure a lot of parenting is about keeping my kid safe and utilizing the additional information and experience that adulthood brings to get his needs met while also allowing him options and freedom to grow. Because I try to parent very consciously, that means constantly questioning why I do certain things, and running a lot of cost-benefit analysis. There are times when I pull rank because as an adult and his parent, I do know what’s best for him a little better than he does at just one year of age. I insist upon changing dirty diapers, for example, even when he’d much rather just keep playing, because I understand cause and effect and I don’t want him to get diaper rash. Similarly, I make the decision to take him to the doctor when he’s sick, even if he’d rather not go, and I get him his shots so he can be protected from terrifying diseases that, once upon a time, killed children.
He needs the freedom to explore his relationships with other people, and I expect that as he grows he’ll need that even more than he does today. And he can’t really explore all of that if I’m constantly checking everyone’s medical records when the neighborhood kids are in our front lawn.
On the other hand, I also do a fair amount of letting go. Though I want desperately to protect him from everything, when he was struggling to learn to walk, I had to step back and let him try, and sometimes fall. My wife and I are also big believers in consent, and so while a diaper change may have to happen no matter what, any non-necessary touch is always up to him and if he says no to a hug, there is no discussion, we just back off. We allow him plenty of unstructured playtime, and as he gets older, he’s beginning to choose more and more things for himself. All of this, when it comes down to it, is about finding that elusive balance between safety and freedom, and about giving him the space to grow into his own person. It's a hard thing to do, but like most parents, I'm holding my breath and doing my very best.
That’s just it, isn’t it? There is always a risk. My job is to minimize the risk without stopping him from living a full life.
And in order to grow into his own person, my son has to be able to have friends. All human beings are social, but my kid happens to be particularly outgoing, and he wants and needs to interact with other children. He needs the freedom to explore his relationships with other people, and I expect that as he grows he’ll need that even more than he does today. And he can’t really explore all of that if I’m constantly checking everyone’s medical records when the neighborhood kids are in our front lawn.
So what do I do? I bite my lip, I worry a little, and I remind myself that at least our child is getting his shots. Is there a small risk that he could still catch something? Of course there is. But that’s just it, isn’t it? There is always a risk. My job is to minimize the risk without stopping him from living a full life. The risk of my kid — who is vaccinated — catching a vaccine-preventable disease from an unvaccinated child is fairly low. And along with the constant risk of being hit by a bus every time I go outside, it’s a risk I’m willing to take in exchange for the enormous benefit that he gets from spending time with other children.
And while it definitely varies, in my family’s case, we don’t really have the resources to handpick his friends anyways. This is the community we live in, these are his peers. Some of the kids he sees on a regular basis have parents who are familiar with the science and are as on-board with vaccines as we are, but others have parents who have come to believe various anti-vaccine ideas. I wish that those parents would make more informed decisions about immunization, of course I do, but there’s nothing I can do about that. Some days it makes me so anxious and upset that I want to scream.
I’m happy to share our science-based reasons for vaccinating, but I also recognize that anti-vaxx parents have usually been under a lot of pressure from multiple angles to just get their kids the shots already, so I don’t really expect to change their minds overnight, or really, ever.
It bothers me, but I know that fighting with them or cutting my kid off from their kids, won’t change their minds. Instead, I remain open to talking about vaccines if other parents initiate it. It turns out that anti-vaxx parents are parents, just like me, and they're also doing what they think is best and are fed up with all the parental judgment. I may vehemently disagree with them, but I can also appreciate where they're coming from to some degree. After all, an angry friend wouldn't change my mind either. I’m happy to share our science-based reasons for vaccinating, but I also recognize that anti-vaxx parents have usually been under a lot of pressure from multiple angles to just get their kids the shots already, so I don’t really expect to change their minds overnight, or really, ever.
The reality is that, whether I like it or not, whether I fight it or not, my kid is going to interact with unvaccinated children. We aren't exactly the most mainstream people in the universe, we're a queer family, we're somewhat hippie-ish, and if I'm not going to lose it over taking my kid to Whole Foods, I feel like it would be hypocritical of me to make a stink about him playing with hippie kids.
I want to recognize that being so casual about the vaccine issue is, in many ways, a privilege. My family just so happens to live in an area that hasn’t seen many outbreaks of preventable diseases (though a recent report by the Detroit Free Press noted that Michigan's DTap vaccination rate is 77.7 percent, one of the five lowest in the country). If we lived in, say, certain parts of California where the measles outbreak took place, it's very likely that I'd feel very differently. While we may know a handful (or more) parents who are anti-vaccine, I don't believe we're living in an anti-vaxx bubble where any of one of these diseases could spread like wildfire overnight. Instead, the herd immunity of the larger population helps keep us all safer. If things change, and overall vaccination rates in our area drop further, my safety concerns may change and I may be forced to take a more regulatory role in his social life. But until that time, I take my kid to all of his appointments, and I try my best not to worry about the immunization status of every other child he interacts with.